A title like I Kick and I Fly suggests images of kickboxing or aeroplanes. But the book is anything but that. Close to kickboxing, yes, and flying, but not as you might imagine. The book is about the journey of a 14-year-old girl, Heera who lives in an urban settlement in Forbesganj, in the eastern state of Bihar, in India bordering Nepal.
Heera’s family is of the Nat indigenous tribe who have lost their livelihoods as entertainers and wrestlers. The community survives by prostituting their girls and young women. Grown Nat men, in cahoots with the police, kidnap and traffic girls and women between Nepal and India and even as far as the United States.
Heera’s daily struggle is to get to school where she looks forward to the only food she gets in 24 hours — rice, lentils, vegetables, and a boiled egg. She dreams of the food, which is missing in her makeshift home of materials that don’t keep out the heat, rain or cold. Her mother breaks stones for a meagre wage and her father drinks, gambles and hangs out. Heera has a brother and two sisters, one who dies from neglect of medical attention as the family has no money.
All around Heera and her family is poverty, misery and despair. It’s taken for granted that women will be sold into prostitution as it’s one way to make money, good money. In some ways, it’s the oldest profession in the world where men, as pimps and organised crime rings, have made money off women’s bodies. And unfortunately, women have been convinced that it’s the way it must be, and they are no good for anything else.
But in I Kick and I Fly, Gupta turns this narrative on its head. Heera is the story of a young woman who is determined to have a different life — by getting an education and making money in a different way for herself and her family. In a riveting storyline thread, Gupta brings to life Heera and her communities’ homes, food, emotions and dreams. There is a lot of dialogue, back and forth, between the characters. As a journalist and filmmaker, Gupta’s eye and ear for graphically portraying situations flows onto the pages.
The book’s strength lies in not evoking pity or guilt from the reader but wonder and empathy for all those who are portrayed, caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and displacement by development gone wrong. The aftermath of policies made by governments who don’t understand the history of their own people or their needs.
Gupta weaves in enormous hope — in the system — that can work if people know how to and can work it. Government schemes meant to benefit children, orphans and the poor can be used to leverage abetter life. With the right incentives, social workers and community empaths come together to create an environment of support for young girls who have been trafficked and violated.
Through the art of kung fu (that’s the kicking and flying), young girls develop a sense of their inner strength and dignity that then seeps into everything they can and want to do. And there is a sense of camaraderie and collectivism. The story isn’t the bravery of just one Heera. It’s the many Heeras that come together and help make change.
The story that starts in Forbesgunj, Bihar, ends there but there is a long journey, and via the US. Gupta’s book isn’t a work of fantasy. It’s fiction based on her real-life work and experiences of trafficking in and outside India. Through her insight and never-say-die philosophy she has managed to get girls out of trafficking and innovate systems to empower them to create lives of dignity. It’s been her life’s mission.
The book will appeal to young and old, men and women, but is especially suggested to those who think and feel that things can never change, and all is lost. The book gives hope and has a feel-good factor to it. It is easy to read, simply written and never dull. There is intrigue, excitement, suspense and action. Sometimes there is a little too much detail of Heera’s kung-fu moves. But all in all, that can be forgiven.
Above all, the book is about change. How individuals can change, how love and care are prime in turning situations around and with patience, how systems can be made to work for people. The slow transformation and work of changing hearts and minds by Heera, her brother, mother and social workers is well-conveyed.
I Kick and I Fly is a must-read book.
I Kick and I Fly
By Ruchira Gupta
Rock the Boat
pp. 336; Rs.499